Despite it all, it should be said that Trae Young is still averaging 28 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds per game. His wide lead in the national player of the year race has closed to a sliver, but he’s still having one of the best freshman seasons ever in college basketball.
It would be crazy if ESPN were not promoting his games, and it would be crazy for The Big Lead and any other American sports website to treat him as if he were anything other than the most interesting phenomenon in college basketball this season.
By incessantly splashing Young’s likeness all over the screen, even during games in which Young isn’t playing, ESPN has turned Young into a pop-up ad for “ESPN college basketball.” And there is nothing more annoying than a pop-up ad, always interrupting you, always flashing across your screen while you’re trying to do something else. Except with Young, you can’t X out of it. You can’t reboot. You can’t install McAfee. You just have to sit there and wait for the ad to run its course.
This is, naturally, enraging. In a logical world, that rage would be directed at ESPN, and not the perfectly polite and non-controversial Young. But rage and logic don’t blend so well in the human psyche, and so Young becomes the object of that rage, through no fault of his own. People lust for his failure, if only to make the pop-ups go away.
Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Young’s game has unraveled since the hype peaked, and I was calling him the best college guard since Steph Curry. Oklahoma has lost six games in a row, during which Young has shot 38 percent from the field. In a 30-point loss to Kansas on Monday, Young had a season-low 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting. It’s an open question whether the Sooners will make the NCAA Tournament.
This is to a large extent attributable to the defensive attention Young has earned from opposing teams, and to an Oklahoma roster that may not have many other options (though it’s hard to tell for sure when one guy has the ball all the time). There is also the problem of Young’s sloppy playing style, which (not coincidentally) has become more and more of a problem for OU as the games have gotten more important.
But I suspect this also has a good deal to do with this just all being a lot to put on a freshman, that he’s a superstar whose got to put on a show for ESPN and score 30 for his team to have a chance.
And so now the haters are out, except it’s hard to believe in a college basketball fan that actually hates Trae Young, because as far as I can tell there is nothing hateable about him. The same thing happened to Tim Tebow so many moons ago. There was nothing even mildly unsavory about Tim Tebow, except that everywhere you looked, there he was.
It is an age-old refrain about celebrity and the media that we build ’em up just to tear ’em down. The news always wants something new, and culture is accelerating at such a pace now that this whole process can be completed inside of a couple months.
For public figures real and aspiring, these are the breaks. You get praise, you get criticism, you’re not supposed to listen to any of it. But that isn’t so easy at 19.